Keeping a civil tongue

With all the wishes people are going to be making for the coming year, I want to talk about just one – that we somehow finally learn how to talk to one other

Two years ago I had the chance to talk to Eugene Golub (the founder of a well-known US developer that’s also active in Poland), who at the time was 88 years old. When I asked him what it was in the modern world that troubled him the most, he thought for a while before replying that it was the lack of civility in the way we address each other, going on to explain that he thought there was too much anger in public discourse. Even though this topic had nothing to do with real estate, I thought I’d pursue it further, because it’s rare for me to be in such total agreement with a businessman. Indeed, it troubles me that the high standards that we can see, for example, at Eurobuild’s Conferences, isn’t the norm for other forms of discourse in our daily lives.

When I was a philosophy student at the University of Warsaw one of the most important thinkers we studied was the Austrian Karl Popper. He had many deep convictions, but in particular he stressed how important it was to have a free and unhindered exchange of ideas and views. He put it more or less like this: when we discuss our views, we send out our opinions to fight and die as they struggle with one another in the battle of ideas. The weakest ideas are overcome by the strongest, resulting in an evolution of thought along the same lines as the survival of the fittest principle in nature. But if we fight with ideas rather than weapons, there’s no need for blood to be spilt. So you could say that discussion is a life-saver by removing conflict from the physical world and relocating it in the world of ideas. Our ideas die, so that we don’t have to.

Maybe what Popper says about the evolution of ideas might seem a tad idealistic, but I think many of us would also admit that Voltaire’s attitude towards free and open discussion, which it echoes, was noble (and indeed, chivalrous). According to his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, it was he who came up with the aphorism: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The reason why, in my opinion, it’s so important to give your opponents the right to express their views is that discussion is essential in preventing conflict. Basically, we risk a breach of the peace by censoring our opponents. Economic pressure and fear as well as physical and verbal aggression all bring conflict into our physical space instead of restricting it to the world of ideas, where it can do us no physical harm. As German poet Heinrich Heine declared: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” Thus using physical means to fight the battle of ideas removes an important safety valve that keeps mankind from safe from bloodshed.

Social media plays an ambiguous role in this regard. On the one hand, it certainly provides us with a platform for the exchange of ideas; but on the other, it is a very flawed platform – the terseness of posts is more akin to verbal stabbing with daggers than any real discussion. Offensive memes that bring little to the table other than aggression, invective and trolling are not conducive to constructive dialogue, and often all they do is raise the temperature of an argument. I think it’s absolutely crucial for us to agree on finding a way of debating online in a civilised manner – one that’s not enforced by censorship from above but based on commonly accepted ideals that we ourselves encourage. I believe that each one of us is responsible for our own behaviour – for occasionally choosing to bite our tongues or for moderating what we say, thus setting an example of how to be civilised and not pour fuel on an already heated atmosphere. I also think that the real estate sector provides such an example of how to communicate. Maybe one of the traps we face is that that we live in a time when people are constantly throwing verbal punches around instead of composing inspiring texts that could perhaps encourage others to do the same.

But apart from trying to lower the temperature and trying to remain civil, what can I personally do about any of this? Well, for a start I could sincerely wish you a peaceful and merry Christmas as well as a happy New Year. As for everything else, I’m sure things will work themselves out.